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el2995 Big Sur - A travel report by USC
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Big Sur,  United States - flag United States -  California
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el2995's travel reports

A Day Trip to California’s Big Sur

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A single day’s visit to Big Sur provides but a preview of the natural splendor that abound there, but will no doubt leave the first-time visitor with fond memories of scenic coastal and mountain vistas, stunning photos and a strong desire to return.

A Big Sur Vista Point Along Hwy. 1
A Big Sur Vista Point Along Hwy. 1
Situated along a 90-mile stretch of California’s scenic central coast and extending inland to the flanks of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the Big Sur region is renowned for its picturesque views of natural grandeur that can be enjoyed at its state parks and beaches, and via coastal vista points from well-placed unpaved turn-outs along US Highway 1. Big Sur is also famous for its tremendous biodiversity, which includes the southernmost habitat of the majestic coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), and its miles of coastal and inland trails from which its flora and fauna can be appreciated. The boundaries of Big Sur, or el sur grande in Spanish (meaning the big south), are roughly defined as the section of coastline extending from the Carmel River south to the San Carpoforo Creek. The Big Sur Valley is located 26 miles south of the boutique town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, nestled amid the Ventana Wilderness Area and Los Padres National Forest. The sparsely-populated Big Sur region contains nine state parks and two federal wildernesses; the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, nineteenth century lighthouse at the Point Sur Lightstation, and the seaside 80-foot McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park are also noteworthy points of interest in the region. The $10 vehicle fee paid upon entrance to any of the Big Sur state parks also allows one to visit the region’s other state parks, excluding the Point Sur Lightstation State Historic Park. A good online resource for planning a day trip to Big Sur is, particularly for finding out ahead of time which hiking trails for a given park may be closed for repair. It should be noted that poison oak is found in abundance at Big Sur. It had been nearly 40 years since my first and only visit to Big Sur, which had been an overnight camping trip to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and some hiking on the trails in the vicinity of the campground. I recently took a day trip down to Big Sur to revisit Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

Favourite spots:
Point Lobos State Reserve - North Shore Trail, overlooking Blue Fish Cove
Point Lobos State Reserve - North Shore Trail, overlooking Blue Fish Cove
I intended to first drive to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, located in the Big Sur Valley, and then drive back up Hwy. 1, stopping as the spirit moved me. Thankfully, the spirit moved me on the way down to stop first at the Point Lobos State Reserve, the northernmost state park within the Big Sur region which abuts a mile-long coastal strand of the Carmel River State Beach, to ask the ranger about parking fees and park hours. He commented that Point Lobos is perhaps the best of the Big Sur Parks, and well-worth a visit. The landscape artist Francis McComas once described Point Lobos as “…the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” The reserve’s extensive system of trails, which I explored for about 4 hours before continuing south to the towering and awe-inspiring redwoods of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, showcase the splendor of the area’s coastal and inland habitats, and one may even be able to spot migrating Gray Whales off the coast (December to May; binoculars recommended).

What's really great:
Pfeiffer Big Sur's Valley View Trail
Pfeiffer Big Sur's Valley View Trail
At Point Lobos, following the South Shore Trail near the Piney Woods parking and picnic area to its end near Hidden Beach provided some fantastic views of the rugged shoreline once the coastal fog has burned off. A roughly 30-minute hike from the start of the Pine Ridge Trail will lead to the Whalers Cabin and Whaling Station Museums, which overlooks Whalers Cove and the nearby nursery grounds of the resident Harbor Seals on the north side of the point. The route, which branches left to follow a circuit which links sections of the Lace Lichen, North Shore and Cabin trails, provides picturesque views of Bluefish Cove. A visitor map provided at the gate identifies suggested routes with helpful narratives, and wheelchair-accessible trails. At Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, most of the Pfeiffer Falls Trail was closed due to damage from the 2008 Basin Complex Fire, but the last open segment of the trail and the 60 foot high falls itself is accessible from the picturesque Valley View Trail.

Picturesque Coastal Views on the Drive South Along Hwy. 1
Picturesque Coastal Views on the Drive South Along Hwy. 1
On the drive down from Point Lobos to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, it is quickly seen why the stretch of Highway 1 through Big Sur is recognized internationally as one of the world’s most beautiful highways. Given the ever-changing and often mesmerizing views of the picturesque coastline and mountains, it’s tempting for visitor to abruptly slow to enter one of the numerous turn-outs to frame that perfect landscape shot. As such, defensive driving within the 55 MPH speed limit is a must, as is avoiding quick stops and starts on unpaved turn-outs and shoulders. A particularly good section of wide shoulder and turn-outs for capturing an especially scenic coastal view, which also includes a rock arch and the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge in the distance, lies just beyond the turnoff for the Rocky Point Restaurant. Another turn-out about 1 mile south of the Bixby Creek Bridge also affords a nice partial view of the bridge set against the picturesque coastline.

Deetjen's Big Sur Inn
Deetjen's Big Sur Inn
As my visit to Big Sur was confined to a day trip, I did not look into accommodations for the area. If one plans on spending a few days in the region and is not limiting themselves to budget lodging, a stay at Deetjen's Big Sur Inn ( may be just the ticket. Opened by Norwegian immigrants Helmuth and Helen Deetjen in the 1930's and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Deetjen's Big Sur Inn conveys a sense of old-world European ambience amid the fresh air, redwood forests and tranquility of Big Sur. The rustic Norwegian-style single-wall construction rooms were hand-crafted using locally scavenged and milled redwood. Note that there are no phones and no TVs (not to mention very spotty cell phone coverage) at Deetjen’s, which will no doubt add to the old-world ambience. Shared bath rooms run $80 to $200; private bath rooms run $140 to $250; note that a minimum two nights stay is required for weekend reservations.

Big Sur travelogue picture
Big Sur is generally not known for its nightlife, as most people visit the region to spend the day or weekend enjoying nature’s splendor along the hillside, creek side and seaside trails of the region’s state parks. However, there are a few options for those looking for something a bit more entertaining than an evening toasting marshmallows over the campground fire pit. Located at Big Sur’s Fernwood Resort (, the Fernwood Tavern often features live entertainment on the weekends, usually on Saturday night beginning at 9:30 PM. At the southern end of the Big Sur region, the San Simeon Beach Bar & Grill ( is said to offer karaoke every Friday and Saturday.

Point Lobos' Weston Beach
Point Lobos' Weston Beach
The best daytime places to hangout during a visit to Big Sur would be at the regions of visitor-accessible beaches and rugged shoreline, and the assorted strategically-placed benches that overlook the stunning trailside vistas, of the region’s State Parks and Beaches. At Point Lobos State Reserve, the stretches of flat pebbled shoreline accented with interesting exposed striations and cobblestone-like patches of rock adjacent to the South Shore Trail in the Weston Beach area appeared to be a popular hangout for families; Seal Point and the headland of the Cypress Grove Trail would be the best hangout if one hopes to catch a glimpse of a migrating Gray Whale. During my visit to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the bench at the end of the Valley View Trail would have been the best place to hangout in the late afternoon and watch the approaching coastal fog slowly claim the sun-gilded slopes of the valley below…had it not already been claimed by a pair of young lovers.

The Fireplace Next to the Big Sur Lodge Coffee Shop
The Fireplace Next to the Big Sur Lodge Coffee Shop
Though Big Sur has no urban areas per se, there are a few clusters of restaurants, gas stations and motels along Highway 1, with most located in the hamlet of Big Sur, about 2 miles north of the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park entrance. Before my 90-minute Valley View Trail hike, I snacked by the fireplace at the coffee shop adjacent to the lobby of the Big Sur Lodge, which also has a restaurant (entrees running $18-$24) that stays open after the park’s 6:30 PM closing time. Acting on a hot tip, I drove down Highway 1 about 3 miles through the evening coastal fog to the historic Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn ( to have dinner at Deetjen’s, the inn’s highly-recommended restaurant. The candle and fireplace-lit interior of the old place with its period décor was very nice, and the aroma of the food coming from the kitchen mixed with the subtle hint of wood smoke was amazing. Unfortunately, I had not made a reservation ahead of time and the place was quite busy.

Other recommendations:
Point Sur Lightstation
Point Sur Lightstation
Given my ‘play it by ear’ itinerary for my day trip to Big Sur, I did not have time to check out the nineteenth century lighthouse at the Point Sur Lightstation and the seaside 80-foot McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park; I would definitely put these on my list of things to see for my next trip down. In talking with a family that I met on the trail at Point Lobos State Reserve, I learned that Garrapata State Park and Beach is also particularly nice, as it also features both coastal and inland habitats. Note that the early evening fog in the Big Sur region that makes those impressive coast redwoods thrive may rob you of that spectacular sunset photo you wanted to take (as was the unfortunate case with me.)

Published on Tuesday August 14th, 2012

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Mon, Nov 26 2012 - 12:41 PM rating by krisek

Nicely narrated and great pictures. Many thanks for sharing. I have passed through there, without stopping back in 1997... Now, I know I should have explored the area.

Fri, Sep 07 2012 - 06:52 PM rating by rangutan

Wayout place ... always good to read about. Well written purely personal story,great! If Highway One never passed there I suppose would be entirely isolated?

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